Survive or Thrive Part 1 – “The Difference between Surviving and Thriving”

A popular riddle goes like this: If a plane crashed on the border of Texas and Oklahoma, in which state would you bury the survivors? At first the question stumps us, until we realize, “A-ha! You don’t bury survivors!” However, when we respond to change by just surviving, we are, in a way, already buried, unable to get up and cross the border between surviving and thriving. Life’s disappointments come in many forms. Like a plane crash, they can be disastrous. Often when I hear about others’ disappointments, my first thought is to hope that they don’t happen to me. So what kind of events can shake us up and send us into survival mode? One day when I was a kid, my brother Rick was sound asleep on the couch in our living room. Seeing how peaceful he was sleeping, I decided to play a trick on him and watch what would happen. Up to this point, our after-school routine was to watch the TV show The Three Stooges just about every afternoon. Getting a few ideas from this show, I went into the kitchen and found the large wooden kitchen matches. I took one match out, placed it between my brother’s big toes, lit it, and ran into the garage. The garage door had a window so that I could watch just how long it took for my brother to wake up. The fire burned slowly down the match stick until it was grilling his toes. Like a bad dream, my brother began moaning, then woke up suddenly to find smoke rising from his feet. All I remember was how fast I moved to get out of the house when I heard my brother yell, “I’m going to kill you!” Running down the street, I was thinking how badly I needed to stay alive and survive until our parents got home, because otherwise my brother was going to bust me up. I was definitely in survivor-mode then. However, as I became an adult I learned that real tragedies and circumstances can come our way that elicit just as much terror as I felt that day.

“I know God will not give me anything I can’t handle. I just wish He didn’t trust me so much.” Mother Teresa

For many, surviving has become a way of just getting by. When faced with a life challenge or uphill battle, surviving is the natural first stage of getting through difficulties. The quiet voice of the surviving mentality reminds you that you are doing well just getting through the day. It’s like sitting on a bench in a busy city park on a sunny afternoon—wishing you were participating in what you see others do but never moving off the bench. Just sitting there, you feel safe; it’s your spot, and familiarity keeps you warm and comfortable. Besides, it’s fun to observe, judge, and critique others’ movements, mistakes, and motives. Other Survivors soon join you, and the group forms a Survivor club. The club even adopts a few rules for its members such as: “Everyone has to share a tragedy (over and over).” All members become skilled in living in the past while perfecting their position as self-appointed judges. It’s a fun, comfortable club that becomes your support group. Meeting every week, all club members gather to watch others do life.
However, for some there is a nagging feeling that if they don’t get off this bench and find a new club they are going to regret it. Sitting on the bench has become a slow death. And for many like me, there is a growing restlessness that there is something more. Sitting on the park bench was alright for a while. However, now it’s time to move on, leave the comfort of my bench, give it up for someone else, and discover something new and more challenging. Even so, there is a constant negative whisper that says, “Remember when you tried to move off the bench and you got hurt? It’s safer just to sit here.” Do you hear the voice that tells you to, “Go, try again, and reach for the stars”? And yet the other voice says, “You’re going to get hurt again. Stay where you are—don’t risk, don’t fail. It’s too painful.” What kind of hurt, pain, and fears are we talking about? Consider the following events and fears that have happened to friends and people around me. Stories like these may be familiar to you or to someone close to you.

• John and Ann return home from a nice night out together. They get a call at midnight that their forty-year-old son has dropped dead from a heart attack.

• Danny knew he was spending more than his income would allow. Now the debt is so large that all his money goes to pay interest. Depression and despair rob him of his sleep.

• Karen, Steve, and their five children are enjoying their beautiful home. The next day, a tornado rips apart their neighborhood. They are now homeless.

• Joanne is a highly successful CEO of a leading corporation. However, revenue has dropped dramatically. She tells her executive team that the company is going to make drastic cuts and that their survival is on the line.

• Jodie and Robert love their church and are particularly grateful for the youth program. Then their daughter tells them a church staff member has been molesting her.

• Lily, a single mom of three, finally has a job that pays the mortgage. After one month, she’s told that the plant is closing and that, as the newest employee, she will be the first to go.

• Mark started his own dream business four years ago, but the market is changing and his clients are disappearing. Bankruptcy sounds like his only option.

• Angie, a hospital nurse and avid volunteer, has always been a tower of support for her patients and community. She finds out she has stage-four cancer.

• As she does every day, Rebecca kisses her husband goodbye and sends him off to work. Two hours later, she sees on the news that the building he works in has collapsed from a terrorist attack.

• Bill is an executive at a large financial services company. He expects next year’s revenues to drop twenty percent and is looking to make significant personal cuts and weather the storm.
• Sean has worked hard for twenty-two years. He finds out that management has been “cooking the books,” the company is worthless, and he’s out of a job—and a pension.

These kinds of life-altering challenges plunge us into survival, the first phase of recovery. Survival is good! But it’s meant to be a beginning point, not an ending. What is the difference between surviving and thriving in these events?

When we’re surviving, we do what we can just to get by. We’re in shock, on autopilot. We haven’t checked out of life, but we haven’t checked back in, either. When we get into bed each night, it’s hard to remember what happened that day. We feel an overwhelming sense of loss and despair. Sometimes it’s easier to stay stuck in our darkness than it is to turn on the light.

“It is nothing to die. It is an awful thing never to have lived.” Jean Valjean, from Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables

One of the biggest differences I see between Survivors and Thrivers is that Thrivers bounce back better than before. They have a kind of super-resilience. They may feel fear, but they choose to have courage, focusing on capabilities and not excuses. Unlike Survivors, who feel that life happens to them and that the best they can do is dodge bullets and put out fires, Thrivers charge into the flames of life without blaming others for their circumstances. They are fully engaged, even while managing a crisis. One foot is grounded in the realities of the present, but the other foot is already stretched into the possibilities of the future. Here are two scenarios showing the difference between surviving and thriving.

Richard, age 55, lost his job after fifteen years of service. At his age, it’s going to be hard to get another job anytime soon. After three months, he is still blaming the company management and their incompetency for his circumstance. His friends began avoiding him because they were tired of hearing Richards’s constant complaining and opinion about how he was the victim.

Angie, age 55, discovered she has cancer and spent days crying and weeping. As she began to acknowledge the reality of her situation, she grieved the loss and pain of her current life but accepted her new life. Joining a cancer support group and relying on the help of family and friends, she is learning all she can about her medical problem. Now she is helping others with the same problem, giving them hope and encouragement.

In both cases, Richard and Angie are surviving life. However, Angie is going beyond just surviving. She is thriving in her situation. Imagine that you were having coffee with both Richard and Angie. Which one would you want to listen to? Which one is fighting back like a sparrow in a hurricane? Are you going through a difficult time? Survivor thinking is natural and good. You need to restore and heal during these times. Park benches are good. I love them when I am tired and need a rest. However, when Survivors are sitting on the bench, they may be there too long and not know it. Maybe you realize you have been sitting on the bench too long. Can you hear the subtle, constant whisper that says, “It’s time to get off the bench”? What’s the difference between Survivors and Thrivers? Survivors look for the park bench, but Thrivers are making parks and benches for others to take a rest.

For more information on The Difference between Surviving and Thriving you can email me at or visit and get your copy of Survive or Thrive!